The dispossessed

Time makes refugees of us all, and orphans. It was the discovery that animated Marcel Proust, and many others — “You can’t go home again” — and is the motive force, I believe, behind most novels and many long poems. The writer has become a stranger in a strange land. At length he may discover that, as Gershom son of Moses, he was born into this strangeness, and carries name and badge. The longing to return — even to Pharaoh’s Egypt — resonates beneath the Book of Exodus. One is proceeding to a home that one has never seen — a promised land, but incomprehensible.

Even the slave, escaped, along the old underground railroad, would feel a cold shudder in transport to the North, and recall the warmth of his old plantation life, that was at least filled with the familiar. And in his mind, the haunt of old beloved faces he will never see again. Who knows what lies ahead, among these strangers? But there is no turning back.

The poster image of the refugee burnt into imagination — of the woman in kerchief, forging forward, with babe swaddled in one arm, pulling an older child along with the other — is a figure of sentiment, but real through all the layers of propaganda. The husband dead, or if he still lives, emasculated in the course of events. Driven from home, by monstrous politics, abandoned to an unknown fate —

Disenfranchised, widowed and orphaned
By an historical mistake:

Europe was crawling with these through and after her twentieth-century wars, and one of the attractions of Louis-Ferdinand Céline is the sharpness of his depictions — the smashed landscapes of roofless walls, the busted boxcars, the broken roads and rails to nowhere; perpetrators and victims, often one and the same. He shows humanity in scenes from which all sweetness and light has been extracted, the dark humour in our monkey cage. He was a deeply religious atheist, in his misanthropy the chronicler of crucified mankind. I find enfolded in his shadows the glimmer of a liberating Catholic truth.

For we who live in bourgeois comfort cannot go home again, either. The world is laid waste behind us, too; all the past is wreckage. This has become the less poignant in our high-tech urban world, under constant reconstruction, even without a war. All that was quaint or lovable is scheduled for demolition, and one finds yet another old familiar row of shops and houses replaced by glass and steel. Blank transparent walls, and people, “wired” or now wirelessly fixed to the machine.

In a corner of my building there are two children, whom I have watched grow through thirteen years (the older is now fourteen). Not the free-range children of my own childhood, but raised like chickens in a coop. Yet with coloured chalks they drew faces, and the grid for hopscotch on the sidewalk outside, and I have heard their childish laughter in the halls. They will move away, and remember this some day, with all the nostalgia from that further displacement; and think back on this, perhaps, from old age. For all of this, too, will pass.

Where are we going, refugees and orphans, in a world ever ceasing to be our own? Where is the hope in a life from which finally everything will be taken, as memory itself withdraws in the encroaching darkness? How shall we, with all our human longing for a home, find our way to a place of belonging, that will not crumble around the next turn?

War, war, our world is all war. And unless our sight is fixed upon the Heaven, there can be no peace.